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Rathlackan court cairn.
Rathlackan court cairn, a well preserved example of this type of monument.

Rathlackan court cairn

The Rathlackan monuments, three court-cairns and a collapsed wedge, are found on the north coast of Mayo with fine panoramic views over Lackan strand and Killala Bay. The main site is a well preserved court-cairn set within an enclosure within a system of field walls similar to those found at the nearby Ceide Fields. The Rathlackan megalith is located in a beautiful site, with sweeping views across the sea, sky and landscape.

The monument at Rathlackan is in good condition because it was completely buried in and preserved by the bog. At some stage in the past, the huge capstone slipped and tipped upright, sticking out from the bog. The site was excavated in the late 1990's by Gretta Byrne, manager of the Ceide Fields visitor centre.

The fine chamber at Rathlackan.
The fine chamber at Rathlackan.

The Rathlackan monument has a fine court built from drystone chunks of sandstone. A pair of well matched jambs lead into a well-preserved chamber of three compartments. The enormous roofing flags have been lifted off the chamber and lie close by. The ground is very wet and spongy: the chamber is full of sphagnum moss. The site was excavated by Gretta Byrne, who is the head guide at the Ceide Fields.

Excavation report

Details from the 1992 excavations are available online. Here is a section from

An area at the north-east corner of the cairn was excavated in order to establish the nature of the cairn and possible court and also to examine the relationship of the eastern end of the enclosure to the tomb.

When the peat was removed a jumbled mass of flattish sandstones was revealed. When the collapsed stones were gradually removed the original cairn structure became apparent, revealing a portion of the entrance and court, a frontal facade from the court to the north edge of the cairn and part of the north kerb (see plan).

A 3.4m long, gently curving, dry-walled section of the court was uncovered. It survived to a maximum height of over 0.9m and was formed by large recumbent sandstone blocks, the largest of which was 1.3m long and 0.38m high, adjacent to the entrance. These were all much thicker and heavier than the stones used in the frontal facade which was also of dry-walled construction and survived up to 0.7m high with up to 5 courses. This was 5m long and extended in a north-south direction, giving a slightly convex front to the cairn. Outside the cairn, both in front of the facade and in the court, the substantial amount of collapsed stones indicated the cairn originally stood much higher.

The northern side of the cairn had a straight dry-walled kerb, but only the basal course of stones, which were well set into the ground, survived. The remainder had been removed in antiquity, prior to the peat growth. One of the larger kerb stones was leaning outwards, apparently pushed out by the pressure of cairn stones behind it, perhaps indicating that this part of the cairn had already collapsed before the stones were removed rather than being deliberately demolished.

The enclosure wall extended northwards from the northeast corner of the cairn but it was very poorly defined, consisting only of loosely and randomly placed stones with no definable edge, although this may have been a gap in the wall. It was not possible so far to determine whether the enclosure here was built before or after the major cairn collapse or indeed whether the cairn material was robbed to build the wall.

In the south-east corner of the cutting a rough paving covered an area of about 2.8m by 1.6m, laid on some cairn collapse, and consisting of flat slabs in a roughly level surface and the hollows filled with rightly packed rounded stones less than 0.1 m in size. This may indicate activity here later than the collapse or displacement of the cairn which also seems to be evidenced by a large quantity of finds throughout the collapsed cairn material immediately around the court entrance.

The monuments at Rathlackan.
The monuments at Rathlackan are positioned with fine views to the east, where Knocknarea in County Sligo stands out on the horizon. The modern plantation of pine trees are beginning to obscure the view.

On several of my visits to Rathlackan I searched for the other two monuments marked on the map as being in the bog nearby, but without success. I managed to find them both on my last trip. They are thought to be the remains of court cairns, but they are in poor condition.

Rathlackan court cairn
The gallery of the second court cairn at Rathlackan, not long after a bog fire had scorched the stones.

The monument in the photo above appears to be the gallery of a court cairn. I had never managed to find it because of the surrounding gorse bushes. The gallery or chamber is about 6 meters long by 2 wide. The large flag at the end is a displaced capstone which has slid from its position. The structure was caught up in a bogfire at that Easter, which scorched the stones.

Destroyed monument at Rathlackan.
The third court monument is largely destroyed, but has a fine view to Nephin Mor, the mountain on the horizon.

The third monument is hard to find because it is so ruined: only a few stumps of stones remain of what looks like the gallery of another court cairn. This megalith is right beside a rough bog track which cuts across the monument beside the chamber. There is a fine view to Nephin Mor which has a neolithic cairn on its summit. There are also the remains of several neolithic hut sites around these three monuments.

A collection of large flags, the Rathlackan wedge has collapsed.
A collection of large flags, the Rathlackan wedge has collapsed.

The fourth monument at Rathlackan is a collection of huge limestone flags, most likely the collapsed chamber of a wedge. It is found about 3 km north of the court cairns, at a much lower altitude and closer to the shore. Wedges generally date to a thousand or so years after the other kinds of megalithic structures.

Looking east from the court cairn at Rathlackan. Two large flagstones from the roof of the chamber can be seen on the left. The Ox Mountains can be seen in the distance. The view to Knocknarea has been obscured by the plantation of pine trees.